The Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure

@ UMass Amherst

Reimagining the Internet

Trebor Scholz, Platform Coopertivism Consortium

January 20, 2021

Trebor Scholz, a scholar and activist at the forefront of the bustling platform cooperativism movement, joins us to talk about how coops can shape everything from ride share apps to data ownership, from local delivery services to music streaming. Trebor is a professor at the New School, where he helms the Platform Cooperativism Consortium. It’s a fascinating listen about the variety of ways coops can aid local communities, labor unions, and freelancers, empowering communities of workers to govern themselves and more equitably distribute revenue.

In addition to the New School’s Platform Cooperatives Now! class, Scholz mentions the following cooperative initiatives:

Transcript

Ethan Zuckerman:

Welcome everybody to Reimagining the Internet. We've got a conversation today with Trebor Scholz. Trebor is a scholar activist. He is a professor at The New School in New York city. He's the founding director of the Platform Co-op Consortium and the Research Initiative for the cooperative digital economy at The New School. He has what must be one of the most busy years off Ether, where he is a fellow at the Open Society Foundation at the Harvard Berkman Klein Center and the Berggruen Initiative. And the reason we're talking with Trebor is that he's someone who has coined the idea of Platform cooperativism, he's been talking about this very important and very helpful idea since 2014. And I think it's one of the ideas that we're really going to want to wrestle with as we think about these questions of the future of the internet. Trebor, it's so good to have you here.

Trebor Scholz:

Yeah. It's really nice to reconnect. Thank you for having me. Really glad to be here.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So we, we have a format that some people fight and that some people embrace. And we're happy either way, but I almost always start these conversations by asking my guests, what's wrong with the internet and what would you like to do to correct it?

Trebor Scholz:

Well, I think I would probably start by framing the question a bit more broadly focusing on platform capitalism at large. So emphasizing that we really can't just look at the internet in isolation. And yeah, so a bit of background. So my activism research and intellectual community building has focused on the way people work online for a long time, longer than I care to remember. So in 2014, I suggested bringing the worker co-op model to the digital economy, asking what it would be like if you had an Uber that would be owned by its drivers on Airbnb, that would be owned by its residents. And that had an enormous resonance. And two books followed and many conferences at The New School. Now, we have a research Initiative that focuses on the cooperative digital economy. Just welcomed seven new PhD students that focus on that.

And several political parties have made that platform cooperative isn't part of their political platform, like the Social Democrats in Germany, the Labour Party in the UK, under the previous and current leadership, and also the legislative assembly in Kerala, India. So we have some 500 projects in 47 countries right now, ranging in sectors from domestic care, to home delivery, agriculture. Also some work in short-term rentals and e-hailing and also social media. So there, I think it's sort of a split screen between digital labor practices and also cooperative internet infrastructure. And I think Ethan, I think this is just such a... While this, we just talked about this a minute ago, has not been an easy year, but this is really a truly cooperative moment. On the one hand, there's this atmosphere of emergency, that's used to push a politics of austerity.

And then there's the sort of rhetoric of a return to normalcy propagated by establishment politicians as a sort of simple way of trying to control this moment at a peace, everybody who wants to imagine and build a different future. But then I think historically, when you look at exactly moments like that, when safety nets that were provided by governments or communities or families for part, this is exactly the moment is tightly when co-ops emerged. And so it's not so surprising that we had a real increase in interest in this work with the last year.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So let's back up a little bit and talk about sort of two different kinds of platform cooperatives. So when we use this term "platform," we can mean fairly different things. So there's one branch of the internet in which what we're often talking about are, or what economists sometimes call, two-sided markets. You have providers of services, you have consumers of services, you try to match them up. Airbnb, Uber. Those both might fall into that space. And the platforms view themselves as quote unquote, neutral providers, matching buyers and sellers. And you and I think would both agree that they are far from neutral.

There's also platforms in the sense that we tend to talk about social media platforms, which is they are service providers that are allowing people to share information online, connect with each other in different ways. And they are being matched involuntarily with advertisers who want their attention in order to sort of pay for those things. Let's take the two in turn. How do platform cooperatives alter both of those models? What does platform cooperativism look like in building an alternative to an Uber or an Airbnb?

Trebor Scholz:

I think it's not the right framing, because so often at events or you in conversations, I guess that's sort of just a natural place to go, just to say like, "So can this be or how is this an alternative to Uber, Google, Apple, Amazon?" But what we find actually, and also historically, when you look at the history of cooperatives, that's not really what co-ops have done. They haven't really replaced large corporations. And when you look at something like smartDOT co-op, it's a platform co-op that has offers an employment status to freelancers, thereby affording them unemployment insurance, health insurance, et cetera. You see, I don't want to go too far into it, but just to show that this is something very specific to the co-op structure, it has really hardly anything to do with these big tech companies.

And yet, it's present in nine European countries, has 35,000 members, and it's quite important. That's why I think that... If you look at Italian community cooperatives, I think they might be the best way to think about what can happen on the internet. Think of an Italian village in the mountains. So hundreds of years old and people are leaving. And so now people have to think about how they get their sick to the hospital, how they run the postal service, and how they run the restaurant so that tourists come into the hotel. And so they are forming community cooperatives to do all these things at once. And I'm just extremely fascinated and inspired by this, which is not directly talking about platform co-ops, but I think it serves the needs that are just underserved by the government or by communities or individuals.

So this is what I said often with many of these platform cooperatives, they find very particular areas in which they, they serve the needs of people. In care, in-home care, in-home delivery services. For example, and also Italy, Italy is on my mind today, I guess. The city of Polonia just launched a platform co-op. And the way they went about it is very different than what we are used to from Deliveroo or Uber Eats or places like that, where they surveyed 150 people in the community, in the midst of the pandemic, asking them what they need. From the store owner, to the libraries, from the bread factory, to the unions, to the cooperatives.

And they found that, yes, they needed delivery services. So what came out was an home delivery service, but thought about and framed in a way very differently to anything else we've seen in the United States, which is they bring books to people's houses from the library. They thought about staying with elder, with pensioners, and talking to them because they are so socially isolated. They pick up food, they deliver bread in the morning to the restaurants and also deliver pizza, but it's much more just it's it came out of the needs of the whole ecosystem, not just the workers. I thought that was really interesting.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So the point being that platform cooperatives are not just Uber Eats that happened to be owned by the participants within the system, platform cooperatives are a different way of going about solving a set of social problems. Is that right?

Trebor Scholz:

Yeah. And when you think of sort of how Nissenbaum's idea of a value sensitive design, so it really responds also in the design of the platforms uniquely to the challenges. Think of Up n' go co-operative in New York City, which has realized that worker profiles are really just there to pit workers against one another. And I found this extremely unuseful. So they just got rid of that when they designed the app and said "Basically no worker profiles for us." When I talked to women, when we were starting a platform co-op in Ahmedabad in Gujarat with the SEWA Federation, we spoke to the women and I asked them what kind of ideas they would have for an app. And these are women who did have not much idea of this world at all. They knew WhatsApp and a little bit of Facebook. The first thing was an arm went up and said like "No worker profiles." So you see how they are not just copying these companies, they are really quite can be very unique. Yeah.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Can you talk a little bit about how platform cooperatives are working in terms of social media or digital spaces?

Trebor Scholz:

Yeah, absolutely. So there basically is a movement, but to create a decentralized peer to peer services. There's a lot of experimentation with co-operative data ownership. There are projects like MyData in Switzerland, which created co-operative patient data ownership, which is then where the patient has the opportunity to release the data to their doctor for free, but perhaps to a for-profit research Initiative at a pay, as at a fee, which is then donated to public research. So it's not that anybody makes money from that. There's an expectation with data trusts. So I wrote a research paper for Sidewalk Labs together with Jutta Treviranus from the Inclusive Research Design Center in Toronto, where we proposed the cooperative data trust for the Sidewalk Labs project, which were essentially allow the people, the residents of this area, to govern the data that are collected on them, and to decide in the first place, much along the lines of the work we saw in Barcelona around data sovereignty, to really that people can also decide which data are actually collected in the first place.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So this question of data trusts and data unions gets into interesting waters very quickly because there's some group of people essentially warning that allowing the collection of data and the possibility of its resale. You offered a very innocuous example, which is to use aggregated data for medical research. Once we get into things like tracking data, data that's used for ad targeting and things like that, there's at the same time, people arguing for decentralized platforms precisely to sort of get rid of that data. This, for me, raises this really interesting question. Is data something that we should be valuing and trying to figure out how to get compensated for our collective data? Or is it something that we should be sort of protecting from exposure? Should we be turning it into an asset or should we be something trying to stop the idea of it being commoditized in that way?

Trebor Scholz:

Well, one thing, I think where there's a unique opportunity for cooperatives sort of giving a maybe roundabout answer to your question is that the cooperative community is organized around the seven cooperative principles. One of is that cooperatives benefit other cooperatives and work to the benefit of other cooperatives. So you have that essentially enshrined in this work, which really opens the gates to shared data standards and a data commons, where cooperatives worldwide could share their data. And I think this is also maybe an answer that's really more urgent to a lot of people in this movement is how can you actually scale this? And one way to scale it is we've found over the last few years at most of these cooperatives work best when they stay local and are relatively small, but then federate, and have a shared digital infrastructure.

So you see this, for example, with CoopCycle in France, which has established a software for delivery cooperatives in Europe. So they work with 47 cooperatives, they're all quite small and they have open-source software that these cooperatives can use. And so in that sense, the data could be shared and bring the benefit right to this, and also create an entity that could actually compete in the market, through Federation, by creating networks. You see this similarly in India where the SEWA Federation has this large number, I think it's 115 cooperatives, in its Federation, while also being a union at the same time with 1.4 million people working together to benefit as an ecosystem, as an ecosystem, the self-employed poor women in India. So you see how this sort of how the opportunities for data commons are kind of obvious there, to share data to the benefit of all members.

Ethan Zuckerman:

There's two ideas there that we end up sort of talking a lot on, on this show and in some of the discussions that we've been having. The first one is the notion of small and federated, because this is very much what people are now sort of proposing for alternative social media spaces. It's very, very difficult to imagine social media spaces where we all create our own incompatible software. It's much more likely that we're going to have some basic standards, some open-source packages, and the ability to federate between those systems, at minimum around things like identity, the ability to sort of move in and out of each other's spaces.

The other one that seems critical is that when you have sufficiently small spaces, it's probably easier for the communities to be involved with actually managing them. And this to me seems like one of the critical failures in these very large scale platforms, whether the transactional platforms like Uber or the social media platforms like Facebook, is that the people who are using these systems have essentially no voice and authority on how they're carried out. When we get systems that are much smaller, the problem of governance becomes more tractable, which not only has the chance of those platforms being fairer, but also has all sorts of positive externalities, like people sort of participating within governance. What are lessons learned from a platform cooperativism about how groups learn how to govern themselves?

Trebor Scholz:

That's the central... I mean, amazing question there. The larger these cooperatives get, the harder it is to really offer democratic governance, a lift democratic governance. And also a feeling of these members actually to be really part of this organization. And well, how do they solve it? How do people start to solve these issues is with tools like Lumeo, from Enspiral in New Zealand. And through participatory processes to really try to engage. And also frankly, tell people about the co-op model. So there are many large platforms where people just realize like, "Well, this platform just pays much better than the others, so that's why they are there." And then they are learning that governance might also be a part of the picture and that this is actually a co-operative. Example I mentioned earlier smart.coop in Europe, and then also in Canada, Stocksy United is a platform for stock photography and video.

And it has around a thousand photographers. It's incredibly competitive and made, I think they had a revenue of like $13 million last year. But so it's quite successful in many ways, but they also found they paid twice as much or more than twice as much. It's the highest paid service, I think, actually in that industry for your images, for stock photography. But then to really operate this as a cooperative is not easy. So on the backend, they have an educational portal, which is really interesting because sort of triggering out these or teasing out these differences, education is another one that's also specific to cooperatives that they educate their members. Getty Images couldn't care less if they-

Ethan Zuckerman:

They probably don't want you to understand the financial model behind it, whereas cooperatives absolutely require you to understand how it works. Yeah.

Trebor Scholz:

But when you commit to a limited number of artists, let's say even like 1,000, then that's actually in your interest to actually educate them and make them produce better products actually for the co-operative as a producer cooperative that it is.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So for someone who's listening to this and saying, "I really want to learn more about this. I want more platform cooperatives in my life." Are there platform that people can join other than the sort of highly geographic, highly local ones that we've been largely talking about? People often sort of come out of a discussion like this and sort of say, "I want to try a decentralized social network," and then sign up for Mastodon. Is there sort of a parallel in the platform co-op space?

Trebor Scholz:

First of all, there's platform.coop where people can go, which is a hub for people to learn about this work. We have a mailing list and newsletter and all of that. But earlier this year, we partnered with Mondragon University, and the platform called Consortium. And now we started offering an online course together on platform co-ops. And in the summer, 1,000 people asked to be registered from over 40 countries. And this is now still running, so now in the second edition. And it's a wonderful way of getting an introduction to this topic. And then in the second half of the course, actually incubate your own idea in collaboration with local partners.

So we have over 40 local organizations around the world that incubate with participants in their local language. And actually in our next edition that will start probably in June of it through The New School, we will also offer it in Spanish again and in English, but then also in Portuguese. And in the first edition, we also had a Korean track and then all the lectures were translated in all these languages. So it's a good way to start because the most amazing thing about it is that the people get to know each other. So here, you have an ecosystem of people that all get to know each other's projects can now collaborate on their businesses and learn from each other.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Is there a future where we have strong alternatives in front of us, where we consider ask the question, "Do I want an Uber or a Lyft, or do I want to go with a ride sharing cooperative that's actually a cooperative?" Is the goal here to compliment some of these exploded business models? Is it to run them out of town? Think big for me for a bit here? What are your ambitions for this movement?

Trebor Scholz:

Well, that's actually that we're thinking about quite concretely now, definitely to create a very large number of jobs in the next 10 years, which I think is something that is obviously particularly needed right now, also in the global south. We're also thinking about conversions. So what would it be like to convert something like care.com into a cooperative? In fact, right now, my colleague Nathan Schneider's converting sort of non-profits and to cooperatives, which is also an important area there. And yeah, it's essentially to scale it with Mondragon, I think, to really reach into the cooperative movement worldwide and continue these experiments, create incubators, reaching.

I mean, we're already reaching tens of thousands of people, but to grow beyond that and really create jobs that are probably, in my opinion, not predominantly competing with these large, big companies. We saw projects like that not do incredibly well, but in New York City, we actually have one underway, which looks incredibly promising. It's the drivers co-operative, which aims to be a tertiary service in this area. But then Ethan, this also doesn't just apply to these particular areas. We are also thinking about higher education. We are thinking about, what can you do with the some 60 million artisans in India? Could you create a cooperative marketplace for them? What could you do with the 650,000 people returning from prison in the United States every year?

Ethan Zuckerman:

Right. Who have incredibly difficult problems with reentering the workforce. And campaigns like Ban the Box and others have not necessarily gone and affirmatively created workplaces that are welcoming re-entry from incarceration.

Trebor Scholz:

Right. And then going back to, I think, one of the earlier episodes that I listened to also, cooperative music streaming. So I spoke with Resonate, the CEO of Resonate just a few days ago. And I think one of the big contributions, and I think this is what is so important to get across, is I remember this conversation. I was at a business conference in Madrid in this very fancy hotel. And in the breakout session, I was talking with an economist who writes for the New York Times and shall remain unnamed. And I asked him about this, "So what do you think of cooperatives?" And he literally looked at me and said, "Insignificant part of the GDP," and turned around and walked off. And maybe, sure.

When you look at the data, Finland, the Netherlands, have around 10% of the GDP, but those numbers can be contested. Might be more like 3% or 4%, even there. But I think what's really important to understand what is actually the value proposition of these projects? And I think that's part for the sort of big vision. What are they actually contributing? they contribute something very different. When I talked to the Resonate founder just a few days ago, he described to me how it's a relatively small cooperative, some 2000 members, but it really creates a culture. It contributes a culture of music for fans and musicians, a sort of social network in which they are connected, but it's a very different value proposition. That's hard to quantify.

When I talked to the recent immigrant who works for Up & Go, she describes how the dignity that she receives from working for this cooperative, the dignity that changes the way she feels in her everyday life. And also how her husband is looking at her. This is how one worker described it. So that's, I think, something that's really hard to put about a value on.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Is it possible that the real contribution of platform cooperativism is embedding a different set of values into the design of these different forms of platforms going forward?

Trebor Scholz:

Well, that's definitely already happening for sure. I think there's also another potential, which is really the fact that this is not just about economic activity, but also about the possibility of connecting distributed workers in the sense that if you go back to the 1880s, where there was with the Knights of Labor, there's, historically of course, this deep connection between cooperatives and unions. Also, they emerged in the same place almost at the same time. North of England, 1844 in Rochdale. So you had guilds forming into unions and you had these sort of first co-operative, not the first, but the most recognizable co-operatives emerge. So lots of parallels there as well. So they can also increase the association of power of workers. Freelancers, let's say, that are distributed, and which unions have fairly insufficiently addressed or protected.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I'm curious, we've been trying to sort of define a set of almost what we're calling like a civic logic, for sort of thinking about if you were to redesign something like a social network with principles that this is a network designed for strengthening ties between people, that it's designed to make people more powerful as citizens and as neighbors, and more accountable, one another, that these networks have to be involved with their own governance. They can't sort of outsource it to third parties. Is there a set of logics that you can imagine as a set of cooperative values that could sort of inform technical design, even of platforms that are not setting up co-ops? Are there lessons to be learned from platform co-ops around the value sphere or is it really a parallel economic model?

Trebor Scholz:

Well, I think it's... I mean, first of all, it's about ownership. I mean, you can't fully control what you don't own, and I think that's a lesson. I think there's a real competitive advantage of platform crops to other businesses where they can say to users and workers that "We can actually control your privacy to a much fuller extent because we own the platform." But then it's also about inclusive design and co-design, so that these projects, that the people you want to end up with, are really part of this project from day one. And that the project response to the needs and all along response to the needs of the people you are designing it with and for.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So Trebor, one of the things that I'm really fascinated with, with the co-op movement in general, and platform cooperativism in particular, is that it's clearly an alternative to traditional corporate models, but it also seems like an alternative to government-supported services. You can imagine, for instance, those delivery services being set up during times of COVID. Some of them that could be set up and administered either by a federal government or a local government. Is there a danger that instead of solving our problems through co-ops that we are sort of letting the government off the hook yet again, and sort of accepting a level of government failure that we then have to make up for as individual citizens? Shouldn't we be demand some of these services as public services?

Trebor Scholz:

Well, Ethan, I think everything at once. We should demand them and we should also help the people who, for the past, not help the people, but supporting people who help themselves already. That over the past 50 years, the failed politics of the past 50 years, that has not sufficiently addressed economic inequality with the American worker since 1972, 1978, in that range. Their wages, if adjusted for inflation, haven't really increased, while their productivity has vastly increased. Who is watching out for them? Who is watching out for them? I spoke yesterday with an infectious disease nurse from Seattle who, in the most emotional terms ever, complained to me and basically says she doesn't know where to turn because the United States healthcare system is so broken. I mean, she likened it to genocide. And therefore, turned to my course on platform cooperatives, because she said like "Well, what else should we do?"

I mean, we need to help ourselves. It's a similar move you saw with the Zapatistas. It's a similar move that you see all over the world. I mean, this is how even in the United States, rural electric cooperatives, which have now 40 million members in the United States, that association, that cover, I think, 41% of the American grid, is cooperatively owned. So there's a reason for that. So because of the vast failure of the system. And so this should not prevent us from pushing for participatory democracy as much of an ideal and however unrealized that may have ever been. I mean, give me an example of where that ever worked.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I think that notion of a response to failure is perhaps maybe the best argument here, that in many cases, we have problems that have not adequately been solved by the markets. We have problems that have not adequately been solved by the public sector. Cooperatives, at that point, offer another vision for going ahead and doing this. There's a lot of really interesting thinking here, and it's wonderful to have the resource of your course to turn to. Trebor, this has really been a pleasure. It's so great to catch up with you and your work. And I really appreciate you coming and talking about the cooperative movement and the implications it might have for the future of the internet. Thanks for being with us.